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Whetstone sharpening - estimating angle?

  • j

Hi everyone,

I took a knife skills class at Sur La Table recently, which included a brief demo of knife sharpening tools and technique (proper angles for German and Japanese knives, etc). I have Wusthof knives at home, and now I'm motivated to learn to keep them sharp myself.

After the class, I bought a whetstone and a set of guides that slip onto the top of the knife to help you maintain the proper angle. Unfortunately, the only guides the store had are for a 15 degree angle, which is for Japanese knives - not the 22.5 degrees I need for my German knives. But I figured the guides would help me eyeball the angle, rather than having nothing at all.

I picked the whetstone over a manual Wusthof pull-through sharpener, because I'd love to learn the technique. I'm kind of anti-gadget, anyway.

But now I'm worried that I'm nuts - is it going to be impossible to eyeball the 22.5 degree angle using a 15 degree guide? Am I going to wreck my knives? Ideally, I'd have bought a 22.5 degree guide, but the store didn't have them and I can't find them anywhere online. And doing it freehand without a guide seems even more risky.

I'm debating returning the whetstone and guides and just buying the pull-through sharpener, so at least I'll know the angle is right.

Any thoughts/advice? I read several other threads, but didn't see this specific question addressed. Thanks!

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  1. I think 22.5 sounds very blunt. I have Japanese and German knives, etc., and I don't think even my thickest, cheapest cleaver has been sharpened to 22.5, at least not with a 50/50 sharpening job.

    1. Fold a piece of paper in half, the angles are 45, 45 and 90, by folding the triangle in half again, along one of the 45 degree angles in half, the angle at the tip of your piece of paper will be 22.5 and you can use the paper as a guide

      1. Take it all back, and get yourself a Spyderco Sharpmaker 204. It's the best home sharpener that money can buy, and it practically eliminates any margin of error. If you have a good forged knife, like the Wusthof Classic, you owe it to the steel to give it a good edge, and that's just not going to happen with just a cheap pair of guides. It's one of the best investments that you can make as far as your expensive knives go.

        My Blog: http://www.epicureforum.com

        1 Reply
        1. re: sirregular

          I agree with you about the Spyderco Sharpmaker. This thing is great!

        2. There are probably as many opinions about maintaining knives as there are people but I'll try to post this in such a way as to not be overly controversial.

          The steel from which cutlery is WAY WAY harder than what most people cut in their kitchen most of the time. It ought not wear away significantly over time. MOST of the time that the edge of a kitchen get "dulled" it is from some sort of "unintended" contact with something that can't easily be cut (bone, dish, cutting surface). Often this contact result in a small portion of the edge being deformed in a minor way.

          The prompt, proper use of a "butcher steel" can often "realign" the edge with no further troubles.While I understand that the alloys traditionally used for Japanese knives are harder than those used for German knives I still find that using a steel seems to effectively realign the edge when it gets out of whack. I know there is some kind of "cult of swordmakers" mindset among many Japanese knife users that compels them to use the traditional methods, but as I do not spend all day preparing Japanese meals I find other methods more in line with my life.

          For that reason I have my F. Dick Dickoron at hand whenever I am using any of my knives.

          If something very bad happens to my knife and the butcher steel will not sufficiently restore a working edge I send my knives to a professional who will examine my knives, re-edge them in a way that is better than the factory and sometimes even send me a note apologizing for how much metal they had to remove for undoing my mistake(s). The factories mostly use jigs and templates and do not do as much inspection as the professional service. Of course the assembly workers at the factories, even if they are highly skilled/experienced, simply must deliver far more knives than any service company.

          I do have the Lansky System , which includes a "jig" and guides to sharpen knives/tools -- it works quite well, but I generally don't use it on kitchen knives much lately. http://www.lanskysharpeners.com/LKUNV...

          I have a knock-off of the Spyderco device, it too works well enough on smaller, cheaper knives that are not worth having professionally serviced. I also got one with a "guide" or jig and it worked well too, but I only need to use on it pocket knives that are also getting whacked up -- http://www.knivesplus.com/crkt-knife-...

          I have some knives that are 20 years and may have been "sent out" almost ten times, and other knives that I've gone 5 or more years and NEVER had to do more than use the butcher steel.

          Additionally I do have a nice "Chef's Choice" unit that will do a noticeably less good than the professional service but is perfect for sharpening the big cheap "Chinese Cleavers" and other low end knives that tend to last about 2-3 years as well as the knives that I pick up at the restaurant supply place and often use as steak knives. Every time this device is used some metal is worn away. I find that it removes far less metal than any other "in home" method and helps me get a long life from cheap knives. So much so that the handles usually give out before anything else.

          I have a few whetstones that are handy enough for tools, but I simply do not think that the practice required to get a consistent result would ever come to a home cook. They are now used exclusively for camping and lawn & garden stuff. I have no idea how/why you'd want to use a whetstone with so many better options...

          Please also see my post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/407856

          1. Set the whetstone on a table. Take the knife and rest the blade, gently, cutting edge
            down, on the stone (as if you were about to cut down into it). That's a 90 degree angle.
            Tilt the blade halfway down. That's 45 degrees. Finally, once more tilt the blade half the
            remaining distance down. 22.5 degrees. While it's hard to estimate a given angle, it's
            easy to estimate these bisections.

            If your blade's already sharpened at that angle, pay careful attention to what the
            sharpening stone is doing to the bevel as you sharpen. Is it taking off more material
            toward the edge, then you're holding the knife at too steep an angle. More towards the
            body of the blade? Then your angle's too low.

            Sharpening can be a very pleasurable activity. Relax. Remember that there's pretty
            much no damage you can do that you won't be able to undo later when your skill
            develops. Give yourself a lot of time. Sometimes I'll spend up to an hour on a single
            chisel getting it tuned up just right. Knives I'm a little less obsessive about but 20
            minutes at least. Even under heavy home use you're only going to need to do this
            once a year or so.

            It helps to have a nice big magnifying glass too so you can get a clear look at
            where you're going; a lot of the interesting activity at the edge is very tiny. I bought
            a cheap pair of the highest-magnification drugstore reading glasses to use for
            sharpening and it improved my work tremendously.

            1. Thanks very much, everyone, for your responses - this is really interesting, and clearly it isn't necessarily a simple, cut-and-dried kind of thing. I'm still not sure what I'll do, but your responses have given me a lot to think through.

              Any other opinions, please feel free to chime in!

              2 Replies
              1. re: Jme

                I wouldn't get too hung up on the precise angle. I mean, if it is 22.5 degrees or 21 degrees isn't that critical. (More than 22.5 degrees and the total angle will be too blunt.) What is more critical is to be consistent. Whatever angle you sharpen to should be the same at all times.
                I use art's method of eyballing the angle from 90 to 45 to 22 (+/-). After a few strokes on the stone muscle memory takes over and you can maintain the same angle.

                1. re: Jme

                  A way to get the same angle a knife already has is a bit risky; it works better on japanese single bevel edges but I've used it on western styles too. Use it at your own risk; I've doneit hundreds (thousands?) of times and knicked my fingers only a couple of times when first learning. (When you work in a kitchen cuts and burns are par for the course...)

                  Place the knife flat on the whetstone with the cutting edge towards you.
                  Place your fingertips on the edge of the blade right at the cutting edge.
                  Push down -- the blade will rock up to the exact correct angle for that knife.
                  Use your other hand to *lightly* hold the handle.

                  Maintain the downward pressure on the blade and *using your fingertips only* push the knife away from you. The hand on the handle exerts *no* pressure other than a very light touch to stop the blade from sliding unevenly. It's *very* tempting to exert force with the handle hand, but don't!

                  Once you get the feeling down it's a great way. Keep your stone clean -- your fingertips may pick up some color from the stone, which easily washes off.

                2. Finally dropped and broke my whetstone and was able to find a 3 sided sharpening system at Lowes Hardware made by Smith's. Oddly enough it came with a small plastic guide that according to the instructions kept the knife's edge at 23 degrees. I have honed 3 of my Wusthof classics and a bargin brand japanese chef's knife and am quite pleased with the results.Also at $19.95 it seems to be also quite a bargin. Has anyone had any experience with this stone and am I harming the japanese knife?

                  1. Interestingly, the video at about.com says to use a small binder clip as a guide for 22 degree accuracy.


                    1. I know this is an old thread but unless one is not looking to change an angle and just wants to duplicate and sharpen at the existing angle it's easy to do with the sharpe method. Just mark the bevel with a sharpe and estimate the angle. After one pass you can see if you are holding the spine too low or high by where the marker has been removed. When you are at the proper angle just hold it there, it's not too hard to maintain a fairly consistent angle and when freehand sharpening it doesn't have to be perfect to be effective.

                      1. Well, as long as this thread has been resurrected, I'll chime in with my twist on things.

                        I don't hold my knife at an angle when I sharpen. I hold it horizontal and level.

                        It's the sharpening stone that I have leaning at an angle.

                        For 99 cents, buy one of those cheapie protractor thingies so you can get a somewhat accurate angle. Or, use the paper folding technique mentioned earlier.

                        I use DMT Duosharp diamond stones, so no water needed. I place the STONE at an angle and old the knife horizontal while stroking. It's a lot easier to be consistent this way, simply because it's a lot easier to judge flat and level than some arbitrary angle.

                        Simply prop one end of the stone up with a book or something until it's sitting at the angle you want, and sharpen away.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: ThreeGigs

                          Not a bad technique. For anyone wanting to try this and would like to have more precision than leaning your stone on a book look to get a panavise.


                          You will also need an angle finder like this one or similar


                          I picked up a similar angle finder when starting free hand sharpening. Don't use it much now but it was cheap at Home Depot like under $10

                        2. The best visual way to see that you are sharpening at the correct angle is using a "Sharpie". Run the marking tip along the bevel, blackening it, run the knife over the stone, lightly, and some of the black line will disappear, either the edge or the other end of the bevel will have been removed by running it across the stone. Adjust your holding angle until the line disappears evenly at the same time. It makes no difference what the angle is, when the line disappears equally at the same time you are sharpening the knife at the same angle it came with. When the black is gone give it a couple more strokes and you've sharpened the knife and all you need to do is steel the edge to align the edge.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Grillncook

                            Not quite... It might be almost but not quite the same angle as before, but it's easy to take off metal and change the angle over time to be more or less than optimum. It *is* a good way to let you know if your technique is good or not, but not so good at making sure the angle is the correct one.

                            1. re: ThreeGigs

                              Not to be contentious, but if you remove the black evenly from side to side there is no way to change the angle of the blade. If you change the angle by even half of a degree the line will not be removed completely from side to side, it's not possible unless you aren't paying attention and then you shouldn't be playing with sharp objects. Is it the optimum way to sharpen a knife, no, but it is fairly accurate and will maintain the angle if done correctly.

                          2. When I got my Wusthof Culinaire knives, they were razor sharp, and I send them out each year for sharpening, but am never happy with the results. So I recently hauled out the old whetstone my grandfather gave me 15 years ago, wet it, ran the knife over it at about a 20-degree angle (which the literature recommended), and watched the action at the edge closely. I'll be darn if the thing isn't as sharp as the day I got it.
                            However, if it's important to maintain the angle that it came with, then I'm doing it wrong, probably.